The ideas of Maimonides (1138-1204) on tzara´at disease (leprosy?): a diagnostic challenge in the Middle Ages

Jaime E. Bortz


This study investigates the views of Maimonides (Cordoba, Spain, 1138 - Fustat, Cairo, 1204) on the disease known as tzara’at, whose major traits - etiology, diagnosis, management, treatment and social features – are well described in the Bible and the Talmud. The corresponding sections in Maimonides’ legal and philosophical works are approached. Seemingly this author posited four causes for tzara’at, namely nutritional, hereditary, contagious and supernatural. We stress the usefulness of comparative studies of texts by medieval authors remarkable for their contributions to several areas in order to attain an integral image of their ideas, also including their potential inconsistencies. Maimonides was aware of the difficulty in defining the term tzara’at from the medical point of view, and acknowledged its polysemic nature and possibly also its multifactorial causality. This article further emphasizes the difficulty inherent in translating ancient terms into modern languages and suggests that translators of Biblical texts ought to seek the collaboration of historians of medicine when translating medical terms mentioned in Biblical sources.

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